The Path to Give California 12 Senators, and Vermont Just One

Maybe the two-senators-per-state rule isn’t as permanent as it seems.

n 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, “Sometime in the next century the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate.” Perhaps that time has come. Today the voting power of a citizen in Wyoming, the smallest state in terms of population, is about 67 times that of a citizen in the largest state of California, and the disparities among the states are only increasing. The situation is untenable.

Pundits, professors, and policy makers have advanced various solutions. Burt Neuborne of NYU has argued in The Wall Street Journal that the best way forward is to break up large states into smaller ones. Akhil Amar of Yale Law School has suggested a national referendum to reform the Senate. The retired congressman John Dingell asserted here in The Atlantic that the Senate should simply be abolished.

There’s a better, more elegant, constitutional way out. Let’s allocate one seat to each state automatically to preserve federalism, but apportion the rest based on population. Here’s how.

Start with the total U.S. population, then divide by 100, since that’s the size of the current, more deliberative upper chamber. Next, allocate senators to each state according to their share of the total; 2/100 equals two senators, 3/100 equals three, etc. Update the apportionment every decade according to the official census.

Using 2017 census estimates as a proxy for the official one coming in 2020, the Rule of One Hundred yields the following outcome: 26 states get only one senator (having about 1/100 of the population or less), 12 states stay at two, eight states gain one or two, and the four biggest states gain more than two: California gets 12 total, Texas gets nine, and Florida and New York get six each. This apportionment shows how out of whack the current Senate has become.

In the new allocation, the total number of senators would be 110. The total is more than 100 because 10 of the smallest states have much less than 0.5/100 of the U.S. population but are still entitled to one senator each.

The obvious reply is, “This is impossible! The Constitution plainly says that each state gets two senators. There’s even a provision in the Constitution that says this rule cannot be amended.” Indeed, Article V, in describing the amendment process, stipulates that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”